In the early hours of the morning of 3rd November 1988, peaceful sleep of unsuspecting citizens of Male’ were brought to an abrupt halt. I don’t remember that day like them waking up to the sound of gunshots. What woke me up were several loud bangs on the door of my room. From the frequency and the impact of the bangs, I felt something was amiss. I never used to get that kind of knocks in any mornings or any knocks any time of the day for that matter. It was the landlady. ‘Male’ is under attack by mercenaries!’ She said frantically and then hurriedly descended downstairs. I was petrified.
When I went downstairs, my landlady was busily making calls to whoever she can get any information about the situation. I tried to call my home but there was no connection. This made me more panicked. But I prayed for the safety of everyone at home. I was in Colombo and I was only seventeen.
As the day progressed, most of my friends studying in Colombo started to gather to the house I was staying. They too were worried for not hearing any news from their respective homes. News kept coming to us in different shapes and forms. We weren’t sure which one to believe. Most of that day, we stayed downstairs in the portico of the house. There was a certain hush and tension filled the air.
By late evening, we finally received confirmed reports that the mercenaries have fled in a ship and the situation in Male’ was under control. We felt so relieved but were still worried for not being able to contact home. While some of my friends did manage to call their loved ones at home, I still couldn’t. There were reports of many people got killed and some even taken as hostages when the mercenaries fled. Thoughts of anyone from my home could be amongst them kept disturbing me. I continued praying. I kept calling home but to no avail. For some odd reasons, I started tuning the radio in my room to the national radio station of Maldives which I used to receive very faintly. I was looking for any reliable news. But the transmission was dead. That night I went to sleep very scared. But I kept waking up in between and tuned on the radio. The signal remained static.
Early morning next day, upon waking up, first thing I did was switching on the radio as if my whole life depended on it. And I couldn’t be more right. This time I did hear the transmission. And above all, I was overjoyed to hear my mother’s voice reading an update of the aftermath of the attack. That meant enough for me. She worked there. I assumed that if something bad had happened to anyone at my home, she wouldn’t have been out at the station. And later that day, I managed to call home and learned everyone was safe.
In 2003, Ministry of Atolls Administration (MAA), where I worked back then, decided to compete in the Inter-office Teledrama Competition for a successive fifth time. This was a competition conducted by Television Maldives (TVM), the national TV channel and one and only TV channel during that time. I spearheaded all the previous 4 dramas MAA made and bagged several accolades including best drama thrice and managed to win a best director and a writing award for myself. In those 4 years, MAA collected a total of 12 awards. And in 2002, MAA’s drama, FANGI (THATCH) made a record of winning 6 out of 8 awarding categories.
When I started brainstorming on a concept for the 2003 competition, I wanted something challenging, something that hasn’t been staged by anyone in this competition in terms of scope and scale. I wanted something that would be looked upon for years to come, something that related to a historical event of the nation.
Yesterday marked 24 years to the above mentioned attack on Male’. It was made a national holiday since then and was named the Victory Day. Yesterday morning when I saw a rerun of the drama that I wrote and directed for MAA for the 2003 competition on TVM, I felt very proud. It was everything I had hoped for. The drama was aptly titled, 3 NOVEMBER.
This drama was a different take of the actual event. The whole concept was how I experienced that day being miles away from the real situation. The tension and panic that day created amongst my friends and me. The drama was shown through the eyes of a young man who was banished to an island after being busted for using drugs. The drama unfolds on how people of that island reacted and the chaos created when they first heard the news of the attack. The narrative then follows in parallel to the chronological order of the real events that took place from the first attack to the fleeing of the mercenaries in a ship with hostages to their eventual surrender days later.
This concept really hit me when I watched again, after a very long time, a video my brother-in-law shot that day with a camcorder. This video tape was my raison de’etre to write 3 NOVEMBER. I borrowed several ideas and materials from it including the audio of a news clip of Voice of America my folks at home were listening to. I even recreated a scene he shot of the neighbors frantically queuing up to buy goods in case things got worse. This video was also the inspiration for the costume design for the drama.
After outlining my teleplay, I did a comprehensive research on the whole event and its aftermath by gathering information from National Language and Historical Research Center (NLHRC). They had a full report published on it.
But it was late Mohamed Saleem (aka Umbe) who experienced that day first-hand, added gist to my concept. He contributed a lot to my outline and especially in the development of his character as a guardian to the protagonist who was very patriotic and raised the spirit of the apprehensive citizens of the island. With him I arranged and re-arranged the outline until it was both compelling and plausible.
When I began writing, my whole focus went in to this massive scene I wanted to stage when the news first broke out as panicky citizens of the island kept gathering in front of the island office to find out what was really happening. I wanted to populate this scene with extras as much as I could. And in other follow up scenes, like the protagonist listening to live news of Voice of America and the panic stricken queue at a shop, I kept adding extras as much as I could. But I kept asking myself if it was possible to physically shoot these scenes just like the way I had written.
So immediately after completing the first draft, I met with my production team from the MAA and informed them that I wanted to shoot the drama in an island where I should be able to get a minimum of 50 extras readily available at any given time. They right away started hunting for the right island.
I also storyboarded the whole gathering scene and met Lathy, the head of the technical team provided by TVM who was also the cinematographer with whom I collaborated in my previous two successive dramas, VAAREY (RAIN) and FANGI. He was so excited about my teleplay, he decided to make a Glidecam all by himself in time the production starts. He assembled an awesomely fully functioning one.
We started principal photography in Thaa Atoll Hirilandhoo. But upon going to this island, I first met with all my extras for the gathering scene on location and explained to them the whole scene. Then I asked them to rehearse the scene for a week. Most of them rehearsed every night and on nights when there was no shooting, Lathy and I observed them with rest of my production team. We brought changes to the crowd placement, their movement and mostly the camera angles. These adjustments were also brought to the storyboard.
I decided to shoot that scene on a Friday since it was a fishing island and Friday being a weekend, most men stayed home. When that day finally arrived, I was a bit nervous and tad overwhelmed to see the huge crowd which must have comprised of more than 85 extras. It was more than the number turned up for the rehearsals. But my entire production team was very supportive, especially Lathy. He was very confident. Each and every one of my production team knew in detail what they have to do. We were fully prepared.
We first shot all the crane shots. Then went on to shoot all the mid shots and the close ups. Since one camera was used, the master shot was on a crane where camera followed the terrified protagonist, Saleem and his co-workers from a distance as they run in to the deafening crowd gathered around a resilient island chief who was trying his best to restore calm. The scale of the whole scene gets revealed as the camera follows the protagonist in to the crowd and slowly pulls up. It was real neat. We needed only two takes for that shot.
The other crane shots where from behind the crowd and another from behind the island chief. The mid shots or the close up shots of actors delivering dialog were completed mostly in one take. We estimated two hours fifteen minutes for the whole scene to shoot but we wrapped up forty five minutes early. It was one of the exhilarating shoots and a real milestone in my whole directorial career.
When 3 NOVEMBER was aired, it was well received by the public. I got several calls praising me for a work well done. But my whole gratification was when most calls I received from the islanders relating to the tension created in that drama to their own experiences on that day. They were very emotional.
Some even asked me how I got the audio of the live news from Voice of America. While some thought I shouldn’t have used the whole speech of the president which he gave soon after victory was assured on that day. The reason I did that was to archive the speech since I managed to get hold of it with great difficulty.
The local news my protagonist listens to on the surrender of the mercenaries who fled in the ship was especially wrote for dramatic purposes. But the tricky part was having it read by my mother who was famous nationwide for her news reading. Many felt it was an original as well.
Though the drama had a historical backdrop, it explored the human psyche on a psychological level. At times of peril one begins to relive their past which flashes right before their eyes and mostly starts regretting the mistakes they have done. They want to straighten out things almost immediately. In this drama, as the protagonist becomes desperate to seek news about his home, his past begins to unravel. The reason why he started using drugs is revealed in flashbacks. And when he gets unconfirmed news that a real hostage taken in the ship has a similar name to his father, his conscience questions the hatred he was having towards his father. Soon his relationship with his father peels off layer after layer.
I was very hopeful of 3 NOVEMBER collecting many awards. But on the awarding night, it received only best director’s award. I was completely shattered and disappointed even. But today I am fully satisfied of my work, the challenge and my wish of 3 NOVEMBER being shown on a historical day of the nation is finally realized. And it remains as one piece of work that tells the story of how majority of Maldivians living in the islands felt that day though they were miles away from the actual event. I too experienced that day similarly but I will always remain close to 3 NOVEMBER, as if I lived it just like the horrified citizens of Male’ who were waken up from their good sleep to the sounds of gunshots.